Thursday, September 17, 2009

What in the world is Trout Fishing in America?

1) Eventually this is about Richard Brautigan.

2) One of my favorite musicians, Jay Farrar of Son Volt, has a new music project about to drop, and I'm very excited for it. It's called One Fast Move or I'm Gone: Kerouac's Big Sur. He's gotten together with Benjamin Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie and Postal Service to do the soundtrack for a new documentary about Jack Kerouac, specifically the writing of his novel Big Sur. What an incredible line up of talent-- I can't wait to hear what their collaboration has produced.

But, thinking about Jack Kerouac and the Beats? They've always seemed kinda dopey to me. Slack, self-absorbed, juvenile-outrage fueled, consumed by their own disjointed empty otherness... I read On the Road in high school and couldn't seem to care. Which, on paper? Never made sense to me: by all accounts, if you do the math, I should love the Beats.

3) Maybe it was Ernie Bushmiller and Chuck Jones making easy targets of late fifties hipsters, back when those that produced youth culture could easily mock youth itself--Something nearly impossible now that that particular tail wags the giant pop culture dog. Maybe Sluggo and Bugs Bunny instilled in me a general distrust of anything with the Beat label.

4) A good friend of mine once dated the coolest high school chick ever, only it was illegal for him to do so (she was 17 and he was 21--he immolated himself daily over it. Good thing he'd already quit drinking). Anyways, this gal was ready to up and defend the Beats, particularly Diane di Prima, one of the few women associated with the Beats. Thus, my sneer at the Beats broadened-- there's something at heart messed up about a movement so centered around being able to pick up and blow like dust, right? And ain't that a gendered thing? Because when the party moves on, the women are the one's stuck having the babies.

5) For that matter, did Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Ferlingetti, etc. ever wear berets and black turtlenecks? Grow soul patches?

6) That girlfriend's name was Erin. She had a great laugh, was wise way beyond her years. A Bellarmine gal with wicked plans. She was Irish, and the only thing I really remember crystal clear about her was a joke she told. A pun on erin go bragh-- she called herself Erin Go Bragh-less-- which cleaves to memory for obvious reasons.

7) Trout Fishing in America, though the most famous, may not be the place to begin. Remember that about Brautigan, in case I don't get there in time.

8) It was Erin who also introduced me to Richard Brautigan, in part because she didn't know how to explain him. He was Beat-ish, certainly the covers to all his books demonstrate a notably Hippy-dippy, flower-power kind of guy. I can say this because he's the only author I know who appears on the cover of every single book I've every found by him.

9)I Feel Horrible. She Doesn't
by Richard Brautigan

I feel horrible. She doesn't
love me and I wander around
like a sewing machine
that's just finished sewing
a turd to a garbage can lid.

10) On paper, when you do the math, I should hate him. Richard Brautigan cares little for narrative clarity, his writing has negligible plot, and sometimes the various pieces of everything we call fiction: character, setting, structure, etc. are all sacrificed for a bewildering yet hypnotic tone, a fascinating piling of metaphor upon metaphor until you don't know what's what anymore. He constructs worlds out of familiar words roped together such that the phrase "Machines of Loving Grace" exists in our language and you're thankful for it, and watermelon sugar is not that at all, but something much much more. And funny! Man, the guy has so much humor and satire going on, but never vicious. He's an incredibly giving writer. Despite the poem above that I quote--what a great first line!--he's never really bitter. His novel The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 is filled filled filled with love. Man his books are brimming with love, an earthy love and I don't mean "tee hee; naughty!" either. I mean he just loves the good body of the world, however that may be expressed, whether it's trout fishing or his beloved San Francisco and all the people in it.

11) There's a kid, well, adult now I suppose, who changed his name to Trout Fishing in America. Legal and everything.

12) My fear is: I just recently found one of the holy grails of comics collecting: Barnaby, by Crockett Johnson. He's the guy who wrote and drew Harold and the Purple Crayon. Anyways, Barnaby is this legendary strip which was collected once back in the forties and again twenty or thirty years later, but that's it. So it's immanently unavailable, a rare thing in these days of Google and Wikipedia and gorgeous, high-priced comic strip reprints. I bought it for 3.50.

Brautigan is like that. He's not really available. I think there may be one collection that's got Trout Fishing in America, The Pill versus The Springhill Mining Disaster, and In Watermelon Sugar that's in print. Hell, he's even got a 600 word novel that's never been printed. But I've found this used bookstore where for some reason they've got all these super cheap paperbacks of all his books collecting dust. And I first picked up one because I remembered the name. Then I went back looking for something to spice up my poetry reading. Now I go just for his stuff.

But I don't want it to be out of some collecting, hoarding fever. And every time I get that worry, I sit down with the opening pages of The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Romance, or The Abortion, and his prose just knocks all worries out of my head. Man, what an amazing writer.

13)Band names derived from Richard Brautigan's writing: Trout Fishing in America, Machines of Loving Grace. Watermelon Sugar.

14) He's not really one of the Beats. He wrote and was published mostly in the sixties, but Ferlingetti was an editor and friend, and he's a quintessential Californian writer, which I guess is how the connection is made. Oh, and one of his books is titled A Confederate General from Big Sur. So, diid I stick the landing?

Find these by Brautigan. I would start at your library, but if not, you might go here:

The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966
The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western

The Pill versus The Springhill Mine Disaster

Who knows what this is:
Trout Fishing In America


tanita✿davis said...

:) Well done! I actually might even read Richard Brautigan after this.

Joe Cottonwood said...

Reading Trout Fishing in America changed my life. Well, actually, the year was 1967 and a lot of things were changing my life, fast. Not a beatnik, he was a hippie, though not comfortable with the label. Perhaps the only readable hippie writer. But labels don't work with him because he was so original. I met him (we had the same publisher, Seymour Lawrence, a nutcase), knew him sort of - he was unknowable, really. Memorable poetry, too, seemingly simple like haiku but with the same resonance - and totally nonacademic. I just love his writing.

gonovice said...

Years back, I had a student job in the college library. I'd see Brautigan on the new book shelf, and I'd grab it. I think my favorite of his poetry books is The Tokyo-Montana Express. And I really want to reread Willard and His Bowling Trophies. An Unfortunate Woman, published after his death, is also excellent. I must end my comment with the word mayonnaise.

Sarah Stevenson said...

1) I love that episode of the Simpsons with Ned Flanders' beatnik parents.

2) At the risk of turning away further guy readers, my mom of all people adores Richard Brautigan (and I think feels the same as you about many of the other Beats, except maybe Ferlinghetti). She was at Berkeley in the late 60s/early 70s studying lit, and that was one of the few places that, many years later, she was able to track down old copies of his books in used book stores--I'm pretty sure Trout Fishing in America is one of the ones she has, that she finally found after years of searching.

3) I haven't read a lot of his poetry except what my mother told me to read, because, well, it's my mom.

4) I'm sending this post to my mom.

Colleen said...

I love everything about this post, Justin - thank you!

Anonymous said...

Thanks everybody for the great feedback! And, yes, I realized later I hadn't made it clear-Brautigan wasn't really a beat writer. And while he was concurrent with hippies, he didn't really fit that moniker either (in that sense, he kind of reminds me of R. Crumb, somebody completely uncategorizable, who's work in many ways embodies some of the ideals of hippies, appropriated by hippies, and yet, totally outside the hippie movement.)

Andrew Karre said...

Well said. Brautigan was a gateway drug for me in junior high. "Giving writer" is very apt.